Bankruptcy of a Farmer
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Sequestration of James McCowan
East Auchanbeg, 1831

James McCowan's coal and farm account book is blank for most of the period, 1820-1829. That he was perhaps finally regaining his footing in Scotland following the bankruptcy of his coal and lime businesses in 1821 may be suggested by the sudden entries, in his account book, for "Cows Bulling" in 1830 and 1831 (to July 20). Evidently a fairly well-established cattle breeder, the local farms of Yondertown, Skelliehill, Brockly, Cumberhead and Coalburn were among his customers.

The four-fold rent increase in 1829 was a substantial financial blow to McCowan during this period of apparent "rejuvenation". On February 11, 1831, John Gibson petitioned for the sequestration of James McCowan. The following six page document illustrates three legal steps in sequestration proceedings: petition for sequestration by the Landlord, notice to the bankrupt by the Sheriff Court, and inventory of the bankrupt's property by a Sheriff-Officer.(1)

11 Febry 1831

Unto the Honble [Honourable] The Sheriff of the Shire of Lanark & his Substitutes

The Petition of John Gibson of Stockbriggs

Humbly Sheweth

That Jas McCowan farmer at East Auchenbegg, possesses the farm of East Auchenbegg part of the Estate of Stockbriggs as tenant to the Petr [Petitioner] at the yearly rent for Crop 1830 & 1831 of thirty five pounds sterling payable half yearly at the terms of Whitsunday & Martinmas in each year by equal portions, beginning the first terms payment at Whitsunday last 1830 and the next at Martinmas thereafter for Crop 1830, and so forth yearly during the possession for the said two years & crops. That the said James McCowan is resting to the Petitioner the sum of Seventy pounds stg as the rent due for his possession for Crop & year 1830, which was payable Whity & Martinmas last, the like sume of seventy pounds stg for crop and year 1831 of which one half will be due at Whitsunday next and the remainder will be payable at Marts thereafter. That the said Jas McCowan having a claim for work performed by him, the Petr is ready to settle with him, and in accounting do allow him credit for the same, but as it is illeguid? the same cannot enter into the present action which is rendered necessary by there being an admitted large balance of rent due which the said James McCowan refuses to pay. That the Petr has a right of hypothec by law for the foresaid years rent, Crop 1830, payable at Whitsunday & Martinmas last and also for the rent that will be due and payable for the present Crop & year 1831, and seeing the crop & stocking on the said lands are liable to be embegged? and abstracted to the prejudice of the Petrs right of hypothec unless a remedy be provided.

May it therefore please your [Lordship] to grant warrant to your Clerks of Court or their servant to repair to the said lands & houses thereon, and there Inventory and sequestrate the whole Corns, Cattle, household furniture and other effects found therein in security to the Petr of the rent [for] crop 1830 and of the curr[ent] crop with the Interest thereof and termly? failures incurred. And thereafter to roup as much thereof as will satisfy and pay the foresaid rents and others already due and incurred together with the expence of Sequestration and roup, and the remainder to remain under sequestration till further orders.

According to Justice
(signed) John Gibson


Lanark 11 Febry 1831

Having considered the foregoing Petition, appoints the same to be intimated to the therein designed Jas McCowan by serving him with a copy thereof and of this deliverance and ordains him to give in answers thereto within four days after such service with Certification and in the meantime grants warrant for sequestrating, Inventorying and securing the whole corns, cattle, household furniture & other effects on the farm mentioned in the Petn in security and for payment to the Petr of the rent mentioned in the Petition and appoints an Inventory to be made up and reported

(signed) John Harkness


I William Reat Sheriff Officer by virtue of the Sheriff of Lanarkshire his deliverance given upon a petition for Sequestration dated at Lanark the eleventh day of February eighteen hundred and thirty one raised at the instance of John Gibson Esq of Stockbriggs complainer against James McCowan farmer at East Auchenbegg in his Majesty's Name and Authority and in Name and Authority of the Said Sheriff lawfuly intimates the same to you James McCowan and desire and require you to conform to said deliverance by lodging answers thereto within the Sheriff Clerks office Lanark within four days after service and in the mean time Inventory, Sequestrate and secure the whole Corns, Cattle, household furniture and other effects as mentioned in said Petition Viz seven Cowes, four Ques, five Calfes, one Horse, one Sow, sixty Sheep, four Mug Pettes, three Corn Stacks, two Hay Stacks, one pitt of Patatories containing about six Bolls, one Cart with Cart Harness, one pair of Fanners, three Cheese Chesurts, four Milk Beynes, one Harrow, one plough, one churn and stalf, one eight day clock and case [probably a long- case or grandfather clock], one Chest of Mahogna Drawers, two large presses, one desk with standarts, one Mahogna Table, one large [portable serving] Tray, one large looking glas, four Chalf Beds, four Bolsters, twelve pair of Blankets, four Bed covers, twelve chairs, one Grate with fire Irons, one Shelf and dressor, one Gun all to remain under sure fence and sequestration ay and untill the petitioner is fully satisfied and paid the Hypothict rents for which the same are made liabel as mentioned in said petition with certification this I do upon the Eleventh day of February eighteen hundred and thirty one years before these witnesses William Pate farmer at Clughbrae and Frances Gall farmer at Over Stockbriggs.

William Reat


Tenant, Landlord and Farm --

James McCowan's legal response or "answers" to the sequestration petition is not available. As his coal and farm account book has entries for "Cows Bulling" at local farms to July 20, 1831, we may perhaps assume that he stayed on at Auchanbeg in some fashion, at least for a few months. Of his last two years in Scotland, little is known -- but, indeed, his third son, David, signed a book "David M'Cowan in Auchinbegg, Lesmehagow, Eighteen hundred and thirty two years, aged fifteen years and 25 days this eighteenth day of Novr 1832 years". The exact relationship between landlord and tenant is unclear for the period from the spring of 1831 to the spring of 1833.  In the spring of 1833 James took his family to Scarborough, Upper Canada, on the same vessel as the families of James Gibson, William Weir, Robert Tacket and John Muir.

While the precise sequence of events that led to McCowan's emigration are not known, we can probably safely assume that his financial situation remained complex. He wrote from Springbank, Scarborough, on August 20, 1834: "If there is any thing to be got of the Mason's effects I hope you will do all for me that you can as I will be a losser by him to a considerable amount". His two-decade career as a coalmaster had been dominated by legal actions of his creditors. It appears, however, that he was a creditor himself when he died of cholera in Upper Canada on August 28, 1834.

This researcher is not qualified to review the legal issues relating to John Gibson's actions as Laird of Stockbriggs. Nor are we sufficiently informed to state Gibson's personal reasons for not being more lenient on February 11, 1831, when he petitioned for the sequestration of James McCowan. It does appear, however, that Gibson himself may have been in financial difficulty in 1831. From Lanark, another John Gibson wrote to James Gibson in Scarborough on July 16, 1834:

I see Stockbriggs [John Gibson of Stockbriggs] going about in Lanark today, he has advertised, or rather the person from whom he has the borrowed money, has advertised Stockbriggs for sale I believe he is altogether dependant on what his wife can squeeze out of her Father for his maintenance, the report is that he wants to go into some small farm [Todlaw] which is at present let to Sandilands, & report says he has offered him L200 to give up his tack, he should get hold of the money.(2)

William McCowan, Colburn, wrote to his nephew, Robert in Scarborough, on March 9, 1836, "Mr. Gibson according to report has sold off the whole of the Land except Todlaw to a Mr. Alston Glasgow" and on November 29, 1837:

Gibson has reserved the Todlaw for himself and is gone to Whitburn Since the death of his fatherinlaw who built him a house said to be worth more than 7000 Serls[?] Mr. Alston bought Yondertown and Holmhead with Midlholm and Kent so that he is now a larger profiter in Lesmahagow. (3)

James McCowan's successor as tenant of East Auchanbeg was Andrew Hamilton, the tenant of Goathouseknowe immediately to the south. James' brother, William, wrote on March 9, 1836.

Old Goathouse is now setting Auchenbegg to Wm Jack Yondertown. It is believed he has lost a good dale of money by it and the houses are almost bare walls now as they have not been repaired since you left them and I think few of his neighbours are sorry at his lose.

William continued on November 29, 1837:

... the death of Old Goathouse who died the latter end of Jany last. Willm Jack is in your old place farmer and it is believed that it will soon ruin him as old Goat lost upwards of 100  in it before gave it over to Jack who has just his tack.

Gibson's eight year tenure as laird of Stockbriggs was almost certainly the most turbulent for the estate's tenant farmers since the market-driven economy was first experienced in Scotland. At least two farms changed hands when Gibson arrived and at least three more changed hands by about the time that he left.


(1) The Sequestration Papers, from the James McCowan Collection, are cited in a draft of Catching Up With the Market Economy (a work in progress)
(2) T.G. Gibson Collection, Markham Museum.
(3) William McCowan letters, James McCowan Collection

The Scarboro Heights Record V11 #11